Meaning Guide

Differences that divide: How simple visuals can help you escape language traps

I was talking to someone recently about government education policy and they said something like “what these people fail to realise is that a school is not a business“.

I don’t want to get into education policy here, but what struck me was how language itself seems to force us into these kinds of dichotomies – school is not a business, an organisation is not a machine, politics is not a game – as though we are talking about separate entities that have to be distinct from each other.  As both a business owner and a school governor, it seemed obvious to me as I was listening that the situation is more like this:

We tend to categorise things by the differences between them. A cat is not a dog, but if we focus on the similarities rather than the differences, they’re almost the same thing. Legally, schools and businesses are not the same thing (even private schools operate through charitable trusts). But what are the differences that make the difference here? As soon as we shift thinking from entities to attributes, we realise that as work organisations they both share a huge number of common features.

I was thinking about this when my brain made a connection with a very similar diagram that Stafford Beer draws at the start of Platform for Change, where he uses Bertrand Russell’s famous Barber paradox to talk about the linguistic obstacles to transformation.  If you don’t know it, the paradox is kind of fun: “The barber in a town shaves everyone who does not shave himself.  Who shaves the barber?”  If the barber shaves himself then he does not shave himself.  If he does not shave himself then he does shave himself.

As Beer says, “the language – meaning the logical structure of the talking – is snarled up in itself.  There is no direct answer to the question.  More particularly, there is no way of discussing what has gone wrong using the language.”  You can’t resolve Russell’s paradox by talking about barbers and shaving, you have to do it by talking about set membership, like this:

It becomes obvious that the hatched area is the barber.  Here’s Beer again:  “The language we started with is so constructed that the two circles are necessarily kept apart.  That language actually DECREATES the barber.  No wonder we felt trapped.”

Beer uses the example to illustrate the importance of metalanguage (that is, language for describing language).  When people’s speech is trapped by a logical structure, you need a language for unpicking the logical structure, not to shout more loudly using the existing one. You can see the futility of this everyday by just tuning in to a political debate.

What I want to highlight though is something Beer doesn’t mention at all, which is just how hard his metalinguistic analysis would be to understand had he not articulated it in visual form.  Drawing out on paper the concepts that people are speaking in words changes the nature of the conversation, creating possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t be noticed.  If I’d had a whiteboard to hand during my conversation about school and business, think how much richer a dialogue we would have had if we’d started populating something like this together:

What characteristics would people come up with? Where would they place them? What goes in the middle? At a minimum, it seems implausible that anyone would come away from the conversation maintaining that there was no overlap at all, that there is an absolute dichotomy between the two.

I like this idea.  Next time I hear someone saying that an X is not a Y when there’s a whiteboard nearby, I think I’ll just draw up these two circles to see what happens. 

Changing language (the “logical structure of the talking”) changes people’s realities.  Drawing pictures is a shortcut to getting there.

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